Every year, when the days grow short and chilly, I make my annual breast pilgrimage to New York. For a few hours I am lotioned, prodded, kneaded, and photographed by surgeons, mammographers, oncologists, and gynecologists, and spend much time between procedures waiting in dark rooms. Some of my medicos make light of our yearly encounters with jokes and banter, but my breasts are precious burdens and I prefer to keep the conversation businesslike as they lay exposed before us.
It began years ago, when my gynecologist Dr. Rossi was doing her rounds of checks of the female parts of me. She delivered my last baby, and although I have since moved to Maryland, I have kept her as my doctor; she has magic hands and I don’t relish the idea of looking for new ones. Dr. Rossi informed me she had found a suspicious lump in my breast, and that I would have to see experts as soon as possible.
In shock, I had to inform my family and boss in Maryland, find somewhere to stay for an uncertain amount of time, as well as someone to whom I could blurt out my fears. New York is not an easy place to find a shoulder to cry on. People are intent on billing hours and making delta profits. Conversations with frightened friends are not chargeable and have no delta.
For days I was on the phone making appointments and walking the city to meet them. All the while I comforted myself that not one woman in my family had ever had breast trouble, and that this was probably—hopefully—probably—hopefully, just a scare. I had read too much not to know, however, that the overwhelming majority of breast cancers are not genetic, and family history was of no moment once a malignancy was discovered. I did find a friend who lent me her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but was living in her Toronto pied-a-terre that week, and she was also my chief counsel. She had seen me through my journey from adolescent loose in New York through sober adulthood, and assured me of—what? Not exactly that everything would be okay, but that everything was as okay as it could be right now. I was doing what I could do.
These breasts of mine, they are family heirlooms. They hang large and low, irrespective of the size of the woman who inherits them. Even when I was thin as Kate Moss, I wore a C-cup bra; and when a normal weight, I’m somewhere between a triple D and a G cup. My mother once talked about a breast reduction, but my father grimaced, and that was that. I figured, these are the breasts I was given and I’m going to keep them, which means that I spend a lot of time looking for bras that fit or wearing ill-fitting garments.
My distress making my nonstandard body approximate the Western ideal, I dismissed as foolish vanity; I reasoned that my breasts were genetic burdens, just like flat feet, to be borne like a good girl, with bowed head. These thoughts took a turn when I became pregnant. I hail from a family of legendary breast-feeders. My grandmother was born weighing two pounds, and since she and her twin sister could not suck her mother dripped breast milk into their mouths until they learned to feed on their own. That milk, and their mother’s persistence, nursed them into childhood in an era before incubators or feeding tubes.
Every day of my pregnancy I creamed up my nipples with my grandmother’s ointment, readying my breasts for their destiny. The moment my daughter was given to me, she latched right on – and did not come off. Day and night she pulled on me, in the subway, while giving a class, in the bathroom, anywhere. She nursed through my second pregnancy, and a year into my son’s life. Never did my breasts complain, nor crack, become infected, or hurt. They are triathlon athletes, Olympian performers.
I am thinking of that first time when I lay ready for inspection in the surgeon’s rooms, waiting for the man who would proclaim me well or in need of fixing. I was so nervous, so sorry for these devoted beasts hanging at my side. “Well, you are large,” he opens the conversation, as he checks for lumps. “And you have such a small frame to support them. Don’t you get backaches?” I am offended; with the thousands of mammary glands he examines a year, why must he make snide remarks about mine?
The surgeon finds nothing awry. He says that the fibers that make up the breast are like noodles that start lumping together with time and gravity and (in my case) heavy usage. A poetic metaphor. But nevertheless, I am immensely relieved. The mammographer and oncologist also find me free of disease, and I can return home unscathed. They caution that with “complex” breasts like mine, it is advisable to make annual rounds of the specialists. I wonder what it might be like to have simple breasts—something like having a simple mind?
My annual breast pilgrimage to New York has now become an opportunity for a private trip together—me and my breasts. At the end of the visit I often feel beaten up and spend too much time in waiting rooms, but otherwise I can wander round the shops, eat in restaurants, treat myself a bit. And feel thankful for the complexity of my mammary glands.
After my son stopped nursing a decade and a half ago, he asked me why my breasts did not just go away. If he had no use for them, he wanted to know why they continued to exist. I could not answer him; it would have been such a relief to have dropped down a size. But now I believe that they remain as a kind of memorial to the selflessness of the woman’s body, the eternal font of life.
Rushing into a conference midway through a speech, I scanned the room for a seat then stopped, startled. Had I entered the Gentlemen’s Gallery of an Orthodox synagogue? But this wasn’t a synagogue – it was a colloquium on derivatives at an Ivy League university! Why was I the lone woman?
I sat down. My mind wandered from derivatives back to another era. It was my first year at Sydney University in Australia and upon entering my maiden Economics tutorial I was confronted with a boys’ football huddle in formation. Prying apart the interlaced arms to make a place for myself, I asked the female tutor, “Where are our money-minded sisters?”
“You’ll get used to it,” the tutor comforted me. But she was wrong. I entered university as women were flooding the disciplines and quickly taking up half the medical and law schools and I usually had plenty of female company in class. Those football physiques provided no advantage in competing for academic awards, which in my year were swept up by women.
Today, responsibility for the tax policy of the United States of America rests with my team. It is the highest honor to be invited to join and log the grueling hours expected of us. Work has a sacred quality: the more you do, the holier you are. Leaving before 7pm is like sneaking out of synagogue midway through the sermon. Extracurriculars such as family or aiding the poor are commendable in small doses; but the core of an American’s identity and the bulk of her or his time must be devoted to paid labor.
Kim and I are the only women on the team with young children. Whenever we catch a moment to chat, Kim dwells on how deficient she feels. “I only come in three days a week, and I just can’t give it my all,” she moans. “If I’m battling the mess at home, I’m thinking about the pile on my desk; and when I sit behind the pile, I’m imagining the volcano smoldering at home.” She laments that she cannot throw herself into the job with enough gusto to command respect from our colleagues.
Kim is wrong. She is a Harvard Law graduate with elite law firm experience and we all vie for the excellent judgment she rations out to our office. But because suffering servitude is the sanctified life, an employee who gives obeisance to a god other than work feels dismissed to the B League.
At a recent staff meeting, our boss announced that superstar Eva will not be returning to work after maternity leave. “Poor thing, she couldn’t bear to leave her baby,” the boss said. Kim and I made eyes. Neither she nor I could bear to leave our babies either, but it happens I am a single mom and she is married to a man who toils for the poor and underrepresented. This means that we must work for the rich and overrepresented. Eva’s husband is so fabulously busy at his place of business that he didn’t make it quite in time for the birth of his first child.
So Eva defects to the other side and Kim and I walk into rooms full of men like Eva’s husband.
But why did I feel so awkward at the conference on derivatives? How exalted was my position there, a peer amongst the most august thinkers in my field! Because I’m a lawmaker, all were deferential to me and there was only one dirty joke the whole day! Altogether, I was welcomed into the boys’ club.
On Shabbat morning, I skipped the conference and attended Orthodox services with my brother, where an opaque curtain separates men and women. Surrounded by flowing skirts, I was anonymous, blessedly shut out from the men. This community of women is my community; here I am invisible. And when I go out to play in the working world, the world of men, I must leave behind the fields of flowing skirts and the dividing screen. Even in games I practice every day, the rules remain unnatural, unfamiliar. Even when invited to join the A League, I remain an outlier.
As Shabbat was ending, my brother and I joined the campus gathering of “Take Back the Night,” an international movement to end violence against women. As the speeches began, my brother pointed out the simultaneous translation into American Sign Language. For him, a hearing-impaired social worker battling for those discarded into the Z League, this was a profound symbol of inclusion.
As we walked through the darkening streets and the ASL signs were lost, I mused, “How many and varied are the hierarchies of man and how glorious must be the view from the top.”
Michal Dicker shares her compelling story of growing into her Orthodox feminist identity. She originally submitted this essay to gain admissions to Barnard College, where she is now a senior, about to submit her senior thesis on the agunah crisis.
“Like mother, like daughter.” This comment often embarrassed me, as I tried to fit in with the girls in my Jewish Orthodox community. I strove to be anything but different—a futile endeavor. Despite my gregariousness, and social graces, my trendy outfits and popular rank, I was branded with an “F”—feminist—thanks to my progressive mom. As I grew older, I thought that I could remain impervious to her convictions but, fortunately for me, I failed. The vast majority of my mom’s opinions began to seem logical. To my own surprise, I found myself advocating her beliefs—specifically in my middle school Judaic classes, where the concept of equal opportunity barely existed. The stirrings of my feminist notions were conceived in a rather convoluted and unconventional manner.
In a class of twelve rambunctious girls who loved to get riled up, I became the resident feminist advocate. Initially, because of my expertise in the field of modern Orthodoxy, and being full of “leftist ideas,” I was the logical choice to play devil’s advocate with our ultra-Orthodox teachers who often stressed male superiority. To the astonishment of my classmates, I grew into the role; what were once strictly my mom’s thoughts and teachings, became my own. The debate with my teachers became a personal crusade to communicate the perspective of my centrist world. Most important to me was advocating the study of Talmud by girls and women, because the Talmud is the foundation for the development of Jewish law (halakha), to which both men and women are subject. I publicly confirmed my feminist beliefs when I took the plunge and read from the Torah to mark my bat mitzvah, a ritual recently revived by some Orthodox women. Although eager to advocate my beliefs, I was unprepared for the social ramifications. Much to my chagrin, I officially became known as “radical”, and I feared ostracism from my peers. I had not yet read The Scarlet Letter, and did not appreciate the concept of a modern-day “Hester.” Despite my display of independence, my good friends did not abandon me.
As I reflect upon this time, I now recognize the crucial role that it played in my personal development. I learned the importance of being psychologically independent; after voicing my “liberal” views, I could not assume that I would be supported. Like my former self, my friends aimed to blend in; many quickly deemed what they did not understand as “erroneous,” a fallacious mindset that still prevails in Jewish Orthodox communities. My indifference to peer pressure proved to be one of my most powerful tools. Both in the classroom and socially, I did not give in to my teachers and peers who did not want to understand. Those who stood by me taught me the importance of genuine friendship.
During this tumultuous time, I also discovered my passion for the pursuit of knowledge—and my adamant refusal to accept anything as fact without research. I attended feminist conferences, joined the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and became dedicated to educating myself and my peers on topics that related to women’s ritual participation and leadership opportunities in Orthodox Judaism. As I entered high school and gained equal access to Judaic texts, I was further inspired to continue on a feminist path. Armed with this power of knowledge and the support of my true friends and family, I have learned to feel comfortable with myself, and confident about my convictions. Now the phrase–“like mother, like daughter”– is the highest form of praise and a badge I wear with pride.
Michal submitted this in response to our call on Facebook for college application essays about Orthodox feminism. If you’ve got an essay sitting somewhere in your files that you’d like to share, send it on over to email@example.com.
This post originally appeared on the Religious Action Center’s blog and has been reprinted here with permission.
In a recent conversation about raising families, I recounted the numerous times that I have been asked, often in an accusatory tone, why I have “only” two children. I guess because I am an Orthodox woman, people think this is an area into which they are allowed to pry. It is a question that I find incredibly personal, and deeply offensive – especially when it is followed with an admonishment that I am falling down on my religious duties by not abiding by the Biblical imperative “to be fruitful and multiply.” Yet one has to look no further than the Four Matriarchs – who no doubt did not have access to any modern birth control techniques – to see that the notion of large families (certainly not from one mother) is not always reflected in our history, even before hormone-based pills, patches or IUDs.
Indeed, our Scripture describes to us that Sarah struggled with infertility until the age of 90, when she birthed Isaac. Rebecca had a pair of twin boys, Esau and Jacob – and then no more. Leah, the most fecund, had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun and a daughter, Dinah. And finally, Rachel gave birth to Joseph, and then after a number of years, had Benjamin, whose birth caused her death.
Beyond informing us of the number and names of children of various Biblical personalities, the Bible does not go into any detail about other related issues – miscarriage, still birth, babies who died shortly after birth, or even the number of infants and children who died from disease and malnourishment. So why was there a dearth of very large families? Did the matriarchs exercise other forms of birth control? The Bible doesn’t say, but of course, anything is possible. What is clear is that though there was angst on the part of the matriarchs who wanted to plan out their families, there is no judgment about them having “only” one or two or seven children. None of us questions whether or not our ancestral mothers fulfilled their duty to “be fruitful and multiply.” (A side note: Maimonides clarifies that this commandment applies only to men because a person cannot be commanded to do something that would jeopardize his/her life.)
The fact is that in so many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox circles, you will find countless Sarahs, Rebeccas, Rachels and Leahs – there can be no doubt that none of these women could be considered disappointments. I’m not advocating for people to model their own families after those in the Bible; polygamy and concubines, among other Biblical traditions, are dated to say the least. I am suggesting that those who use religion as a basis to critique families that are smaller for any reason should look no further than the Bible as a rebuke to their argument.
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This Thursday (March 13) many Jews will fast from sunrise to sunset in commemoration of Esther’s fast before she approached the king, unbidden, to ask for compassion on her people. The Fast of Esther is one of the four minor fast days in the Jewish calendar. At the JOFA conference in December, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold presented a session called Fasting for Two: Who Makes the Call? in which she contributed a much-needed woman’s voice to the conversation.
For centuries, halakhic questions around pregnant and nursing women fasting have been asked by women and answered by men. This session will explore the sources surrounding fasting from the female perspective. What does it mean to study these sources with a woman who is a halakhically knowledgeable member of the clergy who has actually experienced pregnancy and nursing? The answers may surprise you.
Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold recently joined Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim as the Director of Education and Spiritual Enrichment. Previously, she served for six years as the Education and Ritual Director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. Rachel (pronounced “Rakhel”) is a founding member of the Orthodox Leadership Project, serves on the editorial board of the JOFA Journal, and was recognized as one of Chicago JUF ‘s “36 Under 36.” Rachel received her B.A. in Religion from Boston University and completed the Drisha Scholars Circle. She recently graduated as part of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat. Rachel lives in Montreal with her husband, Rabbi Avi Finegold, and their three young daughters.
Session handout available here.
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This post references various parts of the morning prayer services, or Shacharit. For an overview of the parts of that service, click here.
Yesterday I was walking along the park that lines the old railway tracks linking our Jerusalem home
and the twins’ gan (daycare) when I ran into a friend from the neighborhood. He was standing with
an older man who looked vaguely familiar. When my friend introduced us, the man said, “Oh, it’s the Tehillim lady.” When I looked back at him quizzically, he continued, “I hear you singing Tehillim every morning. You’re so devout!” It took me a few moments to realize what he was talking about, because as far as I know, I never chant Psalms. But then suddenly I understood.
Every weekday morning, as I push the girls’ stroller on our way to gan, I “daven” aloud with them. I am putting the word “daven” in quotes because it’s a far cry from serious prayer. I do not have a siddur (prayer book) with me, and I do not recite the full morning service, nor do I stand and sit at the appropriate points, since I am pushing a stroller all the while. Rather, I sing my favorite melodies from the opening psalms of Psukei Dezimra as we walk: I recite Mah Tovu as we walk down the hill to Derekh Hevron, then I chant Ashrei as we cross the busy highway, and I belt out a few Hallelujahs as we make our way through the parking lot towards the park. Many of these prayers are indeed psalms, which explains that older man’s misperception. By the time we get to their gan, I am usually up to the blessings before the Shema. But at that point I stop to take out the girls from their strollers, deposit them in their high chairs, and bend over to kiss them goodbye on the tops of their heads.
I did not realize until now that anyone overheard my morning davening, and I’m a little embarrassed by it all. After all, the proper way to daven is in synagogue with a minyan, while holding a siddur and bending and bowing at the appropriate moments. And yet my approach to prayer is not without precedent; in the third mishnah of Berakhot (10b) we are told of a famous debate between Beit Hillel and Shammai (two schools of thought) about how to recite the Shema. Shammai says that at night one should recite the Shema while lying down, and in the morning one should recite it while standing, to fulfill the verse, “When you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Hillel, who is more lax, says that any position is acceptable, in fulfillment of the verse, “When you go along your way.” That is, Beit Shammai would never approve of the way I daven on the walk to gan, but Beit Hillel would have no problem with my ambulatory prayer.
My husband, too, has a hard time finding time to daven during our rushed and busy mornings, so he has come up with his own creative solution. He puts our two-year-old Matan in his chair with breakfast in front of him, and then brings his siddur and tefillin to the table, where he davens while standing next to Matan. Our son loves singing along, though he knows that he is not allowed to touch the “feeleen” boxes until he finishes eating and washes his hands, after he and Abba have sung Adon Olam together. And Daniel is grateful for the opportunity to daven, even though he looks forward to the day when he can return to minyan and not have to worry about picking cheerios off the floor in between Psukei Dezimra and the Shacharit prayers that follow.
When I think about where we are in our prayer lives, I am reminded of the first mishnah of the fifth chapter of Berakhot (30b), which teaches that one should not begin praying except with koved rosh, a phrase that literally means “heavy-headedness” and connotes tremendous reverence and respect. The mishnah goes on to state that the early pious ones used to wait an hour before praying in order to get into the proper frame of mind for speaking with God. Neither Daniel nor I are able to pray with any degree of koved rosh at this point in our lives. If we feel heaviness of head it is not from our tremendous powers of concentration, but rather from major sleep deprivation caused by our three children under the age of two and a half. Nonetheless, I like to think of our prayer these days as analogous to that preparatory hour of the early pious ones. It is not really prayer, but a preparation for the rest of our prayer lives, when hopefully we will be able to focus better.
The Talmud, in discussing the mishnah about the early pious ones, relates that the Biblical source for the laws of prayer is actually the prayer of Chana, who wept in Shiloh for God to grant her a child, and then offered a beautiful and poetic prayer of thanksgiving after Shmuel was born. And so the rabbis derive the laws of how to pray from a parent. As Chana herself surely knew, praying as a parent is not easy, particularly not in the early morning hours when you are drunk with exhaustion and can hardly see straight. Even so, when I set off to gan with the autumn wind blowing through my hair and my two gorgeous daughters sitting side-by-side in the stroller before me, I feel so full of gratitude that I cannot help but pray.
People talk a lot about societal changes over time, how perspectives and norms evolve – for instance, the idea that centuries ago, the sole accepted role for women was to birth and raise children. While there is truth to this sense of history, it is not the whole picture.
I was amazed recently to come across a commentary, or midrash, that addresses the core of today’s “mommy wars” – and that reflects a perspective as balanced and “progressive” as any I have heard expressed in modern times.
In chapter 4 of the Book of Judges, Deborah—unique in her position as a female prophet and judge—and the soldier Barak engage in battle against a Canaanite army, which is led by a general named Sisera. As the Jews gain the upper hand, Sisera flees and is given refuge – so he believes – by Yael, the wife of a Canaanite ally. After instructing Yael to stand guard, Sisera falls asleep – at which point, Yael picks up a handy tent peg and drives it into his skull, thereby securing the Jewish victory over this enemy.
Deborah’s song of victory in the ensuing chapter includes high praise of Yael: “Blessed above women shall Yael be, the wife of Heber the Kenite, above women in the tent shall she be blessed.” (Judges 5:24)
Who are these “women in the tent,” above whom Yael shall be blessed? And why is she blessed above them?
For some, the association of “women” and “tent” might conjure thoughts of a well-known midrash about Sarah’s modesty (see Rashi on Genesis 18:9). However, Bereishit Rabbah 48:15 provides a different interpretation – one that carries (other) surprising implications.
This midrash cites two similar perspectives on the identity and significance of the “women in tents:” Rabbi Eleazar suggests “women in the tent” refers to the women of the generation that wandered in the desert, where they lived in tents; Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman says the “women in the tent” are the four matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. The two sages agree, however, about the underlying meaning of Deborah’s praise of Yael:
“They [women in tents] gave birth and maintained the world (“קיימו את העולם”) – and what would it have benefited them? For without [Yael], [the Jewish people] would have been lost [at the hands of Sisera]!”
From their tents, these women contributed to the Jewish people by birthing children necessary to perpetuate the [Jewish] “world.” Without the matriarchs’ children, there would have been no Jewish people; and without the children born in Egypt and in the desert, there would have been no growth for the fledgling nation.
However, without Yael’s attack on Sisera, the women’s contributions could have been for naught, as Sisera might have ultimately destroyed the Jewish people.
The message in this midrash is both surprising and obvious.
The battles in today’s “mommy wars” tend towards two opposite extremes. One side maintains that previous generations held a one-dimensional view of a woman’s place and role, and that it is our job as enlightened modern women to overturn that perspective, going out into the world and serving in active leadership roles, with or without having children along the way. Or, declares the other side, the women’s movement went too far, and it is our job as postmodern women to return to our biological roots and focus on our maternal roles, where we will find the greatest personal fulfillment and make the greatest contribution to the world.
This midrash demonstrates that the rabbis of old weren’t as one-dimensional in their perspectives on women as either side of this argument– and neither should we be.
The passage does reflect an underlying assumption of the value of bringing children into the world: women who choose to focus on putting their bodies to the task of perpetuating humanity are indeed “maintaining the world.”
However, that is not the only role that can – or should – be served by women. Because what would become of those children without individuals who take initiative in other areas of life? Perhaps one might argue that the world COULD be saved by men alone– but the examples of Deborah and Yael, and of other women in the Bible, demonstrate that there is no reason for it to be so. Some situations require a woman to step out of the home and respond to a different kind of calling, because women as well as men might have the necessary skills and drive to make that sort of contribution.
Mommy warriors, take heart: These ancient, progressive rabbis think you’re all right.